Wisconsin's offense looked like anything but a typical Badgers offense during its 35-17 loss to the Alabama Crimson Tide last weekend. The almost-always effective ground game gained a paltry 64 yards on 18 carries, with the only gain over 5 yards being a 25-yard end-around by Alex Erickson late in the fourth quarter. Alabama's elite defensive front dominated Wisconsin and put pressure on Joel Stave to keep his team in the game.
In the first half, Stave was able to do that. He completed 14 of 16 attempts for 149 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Due to the immense pressure Alabama was providing, the vast majority of those completions were immediate dump-offs to non-wide receivers. While it was not the most visually impressive display of marksmanship, it was necessary and well-executed. Stave was decisive, accurate and did a good job of keeping the offense on the field despite getting almost no production from his running game.
|Joel Stave vs. Alabama (stats courtesy CFBStats.com)|
|3rd, 1-3 to go||4||4||100||37||0||0||12||4||0||0|
|3rd, 4-6 to go||1||4||25||6||1||0||6||0||0||0|
|3rd, 7-9 to go||1||1||100||4||0||0||4||0||0||0|
|3rd, 10+ to go||1||3||33.3||-2||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|By Field Position|
|Own 1 to 20||2||4||50||21||0||0||15||1||1||0|
|Own 21 to 39||6||12||50||45||0||0||22||2||1||0|
|Own 40 to Opp 40||9||11||81.8||73||0||1||13||5||0||0|
|Opp 39 to 21||7||7||100||80||0||0||23||4||2||0|
The highlight of the first half was Stave's beautiful throw to Erickson for a first down on 2nd-and-17. Stave was able to drop the football into an incredibly small window between the cornerback that was falling back underneath and the safety coming to help over the top.
The question Kirk Herbstreit posed during the telecast, however, was whether Stave meant to hit that window or if it was dumb luck. Herbstreit's opinion was that Stave read man coverage and was not expecting help from the corner underneath. He might be right, but I tend to believe that Stave read the Cover 2 zone and the underneath cornerback almost made a great play to break it up.
Stave's comfort against Alabama's zone coverage was something that impressed me a few times. The other glaring example was when he hit Erickson again downfield, this time over the middle to give Wisconsin a field-goal opportunity before half.
Stave begins to throw as Erickson starts his break to the middle of the open zone and the result is a perfectly-timed, 23-yard strike.
This is something Stave has struggled with in the past; waiting until after the receiver is open to throw the ball and missing the timing of the route. As far as I can remember, he did not do that once against Alabama.
Unfortunately for Stave and Wisconsin, the second half did not go as well. Alabama made some adjustments and dared the Badgers to win matchups on the perimeter. The defensive line kept getting huge pushes, recorded a couple sacks and batted a couple balls down. The defensive backfield ran more man and Wisconsin's receivers struggled to get separation. Few quarterbacks could have overcome the hand Stave was dealt, but there were a couple things Stave needs to improve upon moving forward.
The first is that Stave hardly ever got to his second read. A big part of that was Alabama's active defensive front not giving him time in the pocket. The other part was him staring down receivers, which he has always had a tendency to do. The result was a lot of incomplete passes being fired at a receiver and defensive back that were joined at the hip, and of course the interception to cap off the night for the Wisconsin offense. Going back to the first Erickson highlight, Stave staring Erickson down is what gave the underneath corner the ability to leave his man and almost break up the play.
The other thing is that Stave got happy feet a few times, and not only after things got tough. On a 3rd-and-7 in the second quarter, the Badgers' offensive line held up but Stave refused to set his feet and immediately checked down to Erickson well short of the first-down marker.
I first need to give Stave credit for standing in there, stepping up and taking most of his licks during a physical game. Then there were plays like this, where Stave basically jumped backwards to deliver the pass despite there being no pass rush on top of him. I liked Stave's confidence and decision-making for most of the night, but there were still some times where it looked like he was in over his head.
And let's face it -- basically the entire offense was in over its head against Alabama. The good news is Wisconsin won't have to face a defense near that caliber for the rest of the regular season. The game will now slow down for everyone, especially the offensive line. The game was ugly, but I saw all I needed to from Stave for me to have faith in his senior campaign.